By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 256 pages, $26
Don DeLillo already owned the Twin Towers—in 1997, he chose for the cover of Underworld a haunting Kertesz photograph of the World Trade Center looming in the murk, disappearing up into cloud, a soaring pigeon standing in for a hijacked airliner. And he owned terrorism, which he put at the heart of three novels, Players (1977), The Names (1982) and Mao II (1991). And he owned conspiracy, imagining in Libra (1988)—in encyclopedic detail—the plot that led to the assassination of J.F.K. Now, with his new novel, the extraordinary Falling Man, he has exercised his right of ownership and stamped his name on 9/11: He has written a powerful and direct account of the atrocity and its aftermath.
He owns it, of course, only in the sense that he’s taken an event that we thought we knew too well and made it his own with the lean, nervous, relentlessly ambitious writing that is unmistakably DeLillo. Reading the virtuoso first pages of his novel, we see the catastrophe anew—smell it, taste it, hear it, feel it—as if that September morning had dawned again, fresh and bright: “The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down the streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.”
Out of the smoke and ash comes a man in a suit, carrying a briefcase, “glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light.” The man’s name is Keith Neudecker, and he was working in his office in the North Tower, far too close to the point of impact. Only dimly aware of his injuries, he accepts a lift uptown to the apartment where his estranged wife Lianne lives with their son, Justin, who’s 7. That’s the core of the novel: a survivor and his wife and child and what comes after (“Everything now is measured by after”).
Justin has little friends who now search the skies for planes; Lianne has a mother; the mother has a lover (who may have been complicit with the Red Brigades in the 1970’s); and all of them (and all of us) register in different ways the impact of what Keith has survived, the shock waves emanating from Ground Zero. There’s also another survivor—the owner of the briefcase Keith was carrying when he walked out of the smoke and ash—who says, “I feel like I’m still on the stairs …. If I live to be a hundred I’ll still be on the stairs.” This woman wants to tell Keith everything about her escape from the tower—“the timeless drift of the long spiral down”—a grim march they both endured. “He listened carefully, noting every detail, trying to find himself in the crowd.”
Mr. DeLillo doubles back in time to meet one of the hijackers, Hammad. Rapid, elliptical sketches give us a hazy outline: his recruitment in Hamburg, his training in Afghanistan, the waiting in Florida, the doubts and recommitment, the “electric” presence of Mohamed Atta. “They felt things together, he and his brothers. They felt the claim of danger and isolation. They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more closely than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point.”